Early wake-up alarms used to give many office workers enough time to get ready, drop kids off at school and head to the office. After greeting the office pet and saying “good morning” to coworkers, many would sip coffee while checking emails and getting ready for a meeting.
That all ended suddenly for workers as many offices closed last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. This changed where and how many workers operate. And while some may be back to some form of normalcy, others are still relying on their home offices, dining tables, laptops and more recently, coworking spaces, to get things done.
With COVID-19 protocols, some workplaces are seeing a fraction of their usual traffic and others may have gone completely remote. Take California-based software company Salesforce.com Inc. Its leadership team prophetically announced earlier this year that the “9-to-5 workday is dead” and that workers may now choose to work remotely permanently.
Even before the pandemic, though, a new take on the office space known as coworking spaces started sprouting in big cities in the U.S., from WeWork to Venture X. And in the past few years, cities such as Wilmington, Charlotte and Raleigh have also experienced their share of the rise in these spaces.
A Sense of Community
Coworking spaces are filling a need for those who miss the structure and sense of community gained from a work office, said Aaron Ellis, Wilmington community manager for Dallas-based Common Desk.
The space, which opened Jan. 18 in downtown Wilmington, joined other dedicated coworking spaces in the city, including Blue Mind Coworking, tekMountain, Genesis Block and Coworx.
A smaller, growing city like Wilmington was the right spot for a new Common Desk location, Ellis said.
“We were looking for a market that wasn’t too enormous that we could come in and actually be noticed,” Ellis said about opening in Wilmington. “You drop something like this in middle of San Francisco, and you’re sort of white noise. This downtown area has a local, Southern hospitality-type feel, and that’s who we are.”
The coworking space, at 226 N. Front St., is located on all three floors of the historical Gaylord Building, totaling 22,000 square feet. The space, empty since the 1980s, underwent an extensive renovation by Monteith Construction Corp. that included gutting the building.
The modernized building, complete with a coffee shop, preserved many aspects of the historical building including its brick walls and repurposed pine floor joists.
With 35 private offices, 15,000 square feet of common space, four large suites and amenities, Common Desk hopes to attract a diverse group of members who seek to be productive and most of all, a sense of community.
“We have found that so many people are craving some sort of rhythm in their life for work. Working from home was fun for about the first month and then the reality of it kicked in,” Ellis said. “I think a lot of people didn’t realize how important work community was to them until they didn’t have it anymore.”
So far, the space has gotten a strong reception. As of mid-February, 17 of its 35 offices had been leased. Its private offices were about 31% full, and it had garnered 55 members.
‘The Networking and the Interaction’
Another new coworking space that also seeks to tap into the need for a collective workplace is Blue Mind. With a slated opening in April at 301 Government Center Drive, founders Michael and Julie Donlon wanted to provide a collaborative space that promotes business growth.
With the temporary physical closure of tekMountain due to COVID, the Donlons (shown below
) wanted to create a similar space to serve individuals, solopreneurs and small teams, but also the community.
“Our larger mission is for the space to foster innovation and business growth, which creates more jobs and keeps talented entrepreneurs and small businesses local,” Michael Donlon said.
Blue Mind provides dedicated desks, private offices, conference rooms and meeting and event spaces. Memberships are provided monthly and include amenities.
Michael Donlon said they want to focus on using local providers for the space, from the software it uses to the coffee to the art decorating the space.
The pandemic accelerated many employers’ experiments in remote working, Michael Donlon said.
“I think a lot of employers were a little reticent to do (remote working) just because of loss of control or what have you, but what they are finding is that their employees remain productive and stepped up to the challenge,” he said. “I think the trend was headed that way. This just accelerated the speed that we got there.”
While there are a lot of pluses in remote working, one thing that people start to miss is human interaction, he said.
“When people come into Blue Mind, they certainly ask about the space and the capabilities, but invariably, they ask about the networking and the interaction,” he said. “It’s not just a coworking space. It’s an opportunity for networking with like-minded professionals and sharing ideas and challenges.”
Wilmington has started to see coworking locations popping up because people have realized that now they can work anywhere, he said.
“People can work remotely; they’re not tethered to a company headquarters in the city where they have to work,” Michael Donlon said. “Now they can say, ‘Hey, I can work remotely. Where would I want to live? Let’s live by the beach.’”
What’s Normal Anymore?
As coworking spaces start to accommodate remote workers in a new office model, many traditional office spaces have started adopting a new model as well.
Copycat Print Shop in Wilmington has 10 employees all working on-site. The company, however, has created and used a mitigation plan for COVID-19 scares that includes working remotely, rotating shifts and separating workers at different ends of its office.
Along with air purifiers, the office space has installed acrylic shields along its front counter and dividers between workers, among other measures.
When asked if the office might ever go back to “normal,” Copycat Owner Betsy Kahn said, “Normal … what’s normal anymore? Hard to predict what the future holds. Once everyone has received their vaccinations, perhaps we will relax the mask requirement.”
Evolution of Workplaces
The outlook for how office spaces should look and operate is a focus for Adam Segal, CEO and co-founder of Cove, a Washington, D.C.-based technology firm.
Cove seeks to help companies organize and operate their offices. That includes providing “a tech-enabled experience that puts the day in the users’ hands. We have taken our years of building spaces and tech to now partner with owners of office and residential buildings to create a differentiated, user-driven experience,” Segal said.
Society is currently experiencing the evolution of work, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited many trends that were already happening. Prior to the pandemic, most companies already had work-from-home policies in place,” Segal said. “Now and moving forward, those policies will be key to how companies operate and utilize the office. For some companies, this will mean the end to the central office. For others, it will be reimagining how they use their offices in tandem with remote work.”
Post-pandemic, offices will still be around; they will just look different.
Offices will shrink and no longer revolve around dedicated desks, Segal predicted. Instead, the office will be the spot that brings people together and includes a mix of remote work and in-office.
“The future of office design will ultimately be behavior-based with a more efficient use of space,” he said. “More than likely, most companies will evolve away from one person per one desk. In place of that, you will have a far more dynamic work experience that requires only you and your laptop.”
Office in the Area
From a local perspective, Parker Anderson, co-developer at Wilmington-based SAMM Properties Inc., said the local demand for office space has not slowed down.
“We have more requests now for new product than we have in the past year, especially in areas such as Brunswick County and the northern part of New Hanover County, both areas we are currently planning new projects,” Anderson said. “In addition to planning new projects in Wilmington, we are still moving forward with our pre-COVID office projects in the Triangle area.”
The office and retail commercial real estate contracting firm worked on The Offices at Mayfaire and Offices at Airlie, among other projects.
The outlook for the Wilmington office market will continue to be promising due to vaccinations becoming more widely available and people experiencing “Zoom fatigue,” he said.
“A great example of people feeling confident in navigating their post- COVID plans is that at Bradley Creek Station, we have put 28,400 square feet under contract amongst four different users in the past six weeks,” Anderson said in February. “That is a significant number of space to put under contract in that timeframe even during times when COVID was nonexistent.”
Anderson believes this is an indicator that people are starting to plan for life going back to a new normal in the coming months. The pandemic and increase in remote working will, however, create some changes moving forward.
“We think the biggest change you will see as a result of COVID is companies are going to be more aware and sensitive to not overcrowd their offices, which will result in companies occupying a larger footprint to accommodate the same number of employees but being able to give everyone adequate space,” he said.
In addition, the layout of offices may also shift, according to Segal.
“The office will be divided into places to work based on what you are doing – reservable call boxes for calls, conference spaces for meeting rooms, quiet rooms for heads-down work and open spaces for social work and meetings,” Segal said.
Technology will be key to creating a new office space.
“The way people work has evolved. Commercial offices will need to evolve as well and in doing so change the narrative around the office as it fits into the future of work,” Segal said. “This will start with making the office building a differentiated, tech-driven experience – an experience that you cannot get at home.”